There could scarcely have been a more inauspicious time for a rising than the autumn of 1848 (when the people were reduced to abject misery after four years of starvation): …
… a more inappropriate theatre than the wilds of Slievenamon in Tipperary; or any more unlikely and unqualified leadership that the Protestant educated landlord William Smith-O’Brien, heading an ‘army’ armed merely with pikes, pitchforks and a few fowling pieces.
Certainly there were other leaders present (some of whom, like James Stephens later learned the lessons and organised militant resistance into what finally became the Irish Republican Brotherhood [Fenians] of the 50s-60s]) but O’Brien was in ‘charge’, if that is the appropriate term.
The Young Ireland Clubs and the common people were not found wanting, but again, the leadership was. Enthusiastic meetings were held and well-attended in Meath and Limerick in July 1848. 50,000 rebels assembled on the mountainside of Slievenamon, Tipperary. Nothing happened. As leader William Smith-O’Brien toured Wexford and Kilkenny assembling enthusiastic supporters. By the time he reached Mullinahone in County Tipperary he had an army of 6000 men but if they were armed at all, it was with pikes and sticks that they had brought themselves.
No arrangements at all had been made, even to feed his followers. Demonstrating just how completely out-of-touch he was with the plight of these starving cottiers and labourers in Famine times, he instructed his followers to go home and get enough food for four days and ‘oatmeal, bread and hard-boiled eggs’. Most went home, not to return.
Relief came in the shape of Terence Bellew McManus, a Fermanagh man with forty volunteers he had brought over from Liverpool.
Marching towards Slievenamon they met a force of police at Ballingarry on 30 July 1848. The police retreated into Widow McCormack’s farmhouse and barricaded the windows and doors. The frantic widow returned, seeking to protect her four children inside. Negotiations followed but were interrupted by stone-throwing from the mob. The police opened fire, killing one man and severely injuring another. O’Brien was shot in the leg.
The rebels fled. The ’48 Rebellion was over.
Arrests followed, notably O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher and Pat O’Donaghoe of Dublin. Deportations were to follow. John O’Leary was involved in an attempt to free the leaders from Clonmel gaol. James Stephens, O’Gorman, Devin Reilly, Michael Doheny and the others went on the run.
The Young Ireland group ceased to be.
… more later …